I recently had the rare chance to catch up with one of my “new mom” friends, Nancy. She and I are both Latinas, and though we are from different countries, we share many similar traditions. As both new moms and first generation United States citizens, we talked about how we are gearing up for the holiday season. In the US, we are now in what social media fondly calls “spooky season.” As Nancy and I talked about our plans to celebrate, I thought about the origins of many Latin holidays that came about from a blending of ancient religious superstition and the Catholicism brought to Latin countries through colonization.
Celebrating Latin Heritage and Holidays
“I never thought about it before but I’m not sure I really plan on celebrating Halloween this year.” Nancy told me when we were catching up. “I think I’m actually planning on celebrating Dia de Los Muertos instead! It hadn’t really occurred to me before because my family rarely celebrated it in our own home – it was more of a social, community thing we did back in Juarez. But now that [my son] is here and half American, I want him to get to know his heritage and share in the same memories I had as a child.”
We talked about Nancy’s father, who is from the southern regions of Mexico (where certain traditions are stronger than they generally are in Juarez), and about how her family celebrated Dia de Los Muertos.
“My parents were very intentionally Catholic, which made them a little less interested in doing the home altars for our deceased relatives. Instead we went to the community’s celebrations at school, where they’d make these huge memorial altars where people would bring photos of their deceased relatives and their favorite foods to share a meal with them.”
Nancy went on to say that the beauty of the cempasúchil (marigolds) and the colorful calaveras (sugar skulls and painted skeletons) were things she loved, though she never dressed up when she was a child. Her sister started dressing up as La Catrina after becoming a part of a growing Mexican community in recent years, and it has inspired Nancy to dig deeper into her roots.
How Colonization Blended Catholicism and Ancient Superstition
Before the globalization of American culture, Latin America celebrated All Souls Day and All Saints Day without a whisper of trick-or-treating or Halloween. In Mexico, this took special form in Dia de Los Muertos, a multi-day celebration coinciding with All Souls Day and All Saints Day, when Mexicans and Central Americans celebrate the memories and lives of their deceased relatives.
Mesoamerica had been celebrating this tradition for 3,000 years. It only began to be celebrated in conjunction with Catholic holidays after colonization by the Spanish. As it is for most Latin American countries’ traditions, there exists a blending of both ancient and spiritual identities. Indigenous civilizations in the Central and South American regions were deeply spiritual, and many superstitions were ingrained into their identities through religious practices as nations.
It was crucial to the colonization of these civilizations by Spain to bridge the gap between these practices and Catholicism as well as they could, without eradicating these spiritual practices and rituals. This created an entirely unique practice of Catholicism all together.
Religious Origins of National Holidays in Latin Countries
National holidays play a huge part in shaping a country’s culture and what it looks like to be a part of that country’s people. They are a major factor in what sets Latin American countries apart from one another, but also in what binds them closely together.
It’s true that many national holidays in Latin American countries have religious origins. Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12th) is celebrated nationally in many Latin American countries. Other popular holidays include celebrating Semana Santa (Holy Week) in lieu of Spring Break and observing Father’s Day on the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19th). In my country of origin, Colombia, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) is another big one.
These national recognized holidays are usually celebrated with great feasts, fireworks, parades – you name it. Community-based Catholic traditions are extremely popular within Latin countries. For example, instead of making cookies for Santa Claus, we celebrate La Novena by praying a novena, dancing, singing, and eating during the nine days before Christmas Day as we prepare to welcome El Niño Jesus.
The Messiness of Blending Ancient and Catholic Spiritualities
Latin American and Caribbean countries boast the largest populations of Catholics, making up around 39% of all Catholics globally in 2010, with three Latin American countries appearing in the top ten most Catholic countries in the world in 2019. While the percentage of Catholics in all Western countries is declining, Catholicism in Latin countries persists as a cultural identity. With each country claiming their own lesser-known Marian apparitions, the casual wearing of rosaries as bracelets or necklaces, and having the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe printed on nearly every item imaginable, being Catholic and Latin American has been almost synonymous.
This has not come without its faults. Enmeshment of Latin America’s ancestral spirituality with Catholicism has always posed a threat to the national identities of many Latin American generations. It is no surprise that, over time, the relationship between a Latin nation’s culture and Catholicism has resulted in a variety of superstitious and borderline (if not at times overtly) problematic practices. Many of these practices are perpetuated through cultural traditions, and the expectations to abide by them are given spiritual weight.
For example, there is generally a greater susceptibility to “apocalyptic” speech and approaches towards religion and life. Death is a regular visitor to Latin American countries, whether through extreme poverty, natural disasters, or tragedies of guerilla warfare. The seemingly constant turmoil within our countries has existed for thousands of years, and has often been attributed to dark, unseen forces. Much of our indigenous roots and practices were to seek healing and protection from these dark forces, something the Spanish were able to use to facilitate conversions to Christianity.
These practices are perpetuated in ritualistic traditions, from smaller ones like saying “sana sana colita de rana” when your child falls and scrapes their knee, to beliefs that require more intentional solutions like “El Mal de Ojo” or “the Evil Eye” and eventually lead down darker paths to practices like Santeria.
Many of these ritualistic traditions result in wearing items that repel dark spirits or ill will, having within them an ancient presumption that we are all at the mercy of the spiritual world and its whims. Ways to control and break free from these negative “chains” often require the use of religious practices which, in most cases, must be continued through generations. From frequent exorcisms (some sources that claim 1 in 8 Hispanics in the US have witnessed an exorcism) to burning “Jesus” candles in the wake of natural disasters, there has been a consistent embrace of a more charismatic approach to Catholicism within Latin America.
Mortification and suffering take on greater meanings as a result of the Catholic and indigenous perceptions of suffering and sacrifices. Suffering holds high value and is even revered when attempting to achieve greater spiritual gifts, which in turn enables a culture that views suffering as equitable to a gift for holiness. This becomes problematic on many levels, leading many devout Catholics ,and particularly older Latin generations, to permit the existence of untreated mental illnesses for the sake of perceived sanctity. As a result, God’s judgment can be defined most clearly in the chaos of the uncontrollable forces of nature, life, and tragedy, and His mercy found in suffering.
Owning our Cultural and Religious Traditions
However, as the decades pass and our countries continue to progress alongside newer First World countries in various technologies, exposure to other ways of life often comes with the breaking of traditions.
For example, while about 68% of all Colombians identify as Catholics, in recent years, there has been backlash for not creating a greater and more public divide of Church and state. The previous Vice President, Marta Lucía Ramírez, was sanctioned in 2021 for consecrating the nation to Our Lady of Fátima and asking for her protection against COVID-19 on social media. Surprising as it may seem, Colombia’s neighboring country Ecuador was publicly consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the late 1800s by their president, Gabriel García Moreno, who was later killed in 1875 for his pro-Catholic policies.
In the last few decades, there has been political and social turmoil in our countries, much of which demonstrates more progressive movements aligning themselves to deconstructionist and anti-Catholic views. But for now, Latin American cultures still remain extremely Catholic overall, maintaining their uniquely religious national holidays with no sign of leaving them behind.
For people like Nancy and I, it’s an opportunity to share with our children the richness of our cultures, both ancient and renewed through Catholicism. Though our traditions may have come as a result of influence from Catholic Spanish conquistadors, generations of Latin Americans have long made them our own and a part of our Faith.
Nancy is looking forward to sharing these traditions with her son, especially Dia de Los Muertos. “I am just so excited to share it with him. I don’t feel there is much of a division between my Catholic beliefs and the idea that on Dia de Los Muertos, our deceased loved ones’ memories are remembered and celebrated. There is a recognition that our deceased relatives haven’t really died, especially when they live on in our memories. The meals we ‘share’ with them are the best part because it reminds me of the resurrection. Christ came back from the dead and ate and drank with his beloved apostles, so it's like a taste of what is to come.”